The Champions League is No Child’s Play After All

December 10, 2009

Our young guns had a nice run out. Their somewhat unpolished skills and endeavor fell short but Arsenal reserves showed they are capable of competing and even dominating a European tie. A 1 – 0 loss away to the Greek champions, with our youngest ever Champions League squad, is not a bad result by any means.

Bartley and Cruise must thank their stars, not many youngsters get to make their first team debut in a Champions League game. Song was restored to the midfield probably to provide some solidity at the center of park. The rest of the starting line up was as expected by most.

The first few minutes gave the impression that the youngsters will make Nikopolidis and his defence work hard for a result. It turned out to be a false dawn as the Greek side settled down after a shaky start. They remained organized till the end of the game and the oldest man on the pitch had an easy night out.

Part of the blame must fall on our players. The final ball was poor on most occasions. And when the defence splitting pass did arrive Walcott and Vela, failed to apply the finish.

There is no point analyzing such a game in detail but I want to touch upon a few areas of improvement. The idea is not to be critical of the players but to discuss the small changes that can convert some of these players into a finished article.

Theo has been around for a while now and expectations from the England hopeful are high. Unfortunately, he is still not completely comfortable with the ball as it gets lost between his feet quite often. His first touch and crossing also need some improvement. Tonight’s performance can be down to lack of playing time but he will need to up his game considerably if he wants to make a significant impact for us this season.

Vela was surprisingly disappointing with his finishing. In the past he has shown that he can be clinical. It might be down to the fact that recently he has spent a lot of time on the flanks and I would really like to know if he trains more as a winger or a central striker.

Walcott and Vela are only 20 and they will certainly get better over time. What matters right now is whether they are good enough to fill the immediate vacancy or not. Neither of the two is a big strong lad, so they will need impeccable technique if they want to flourish in a tough league. I think Arsene will see how they perform over the next month before finalizing his plans for the transfer window.

Wilshere looked like he had an off day. He definitely needs more game time and Arsene should actively look for a good club where he can compete for a starting spot. It’s probably down to finding a manager Arsene can loan a gem to and feel confident that he will be polished and not damaged.

Ramsey and Merida had decent games. Ramsey is very close to being ready for the first team but he needs to deliver consistently for 90 minutes game after game. Merida is another player who needs more time on the pitch. I also feel he would be better off playing further up the pitch in a Cesc like free role as he can find the final pass or apply the finishing touch. Right now he seems a little lost when he drops deep. I guess AW wants him to be a complete midfielder and not just a creative one.

Among the debutants, Cruise had a good game against a tough opponent in Galletti. Bartley was solid overall but made a bad mistake for the goal. Defence is an art that is honed through experience and Bartley has some way to go before he can start knocking on the first team doors.

I was quite satisfied with the game although there were times when it did feel like some of our players were taking it easy on the pitch. The first round is behind us now and hopefully we will have a much fitter squad for the knockouts.


Arsene Kidding the Greek Champions

December 8, 2009

The Carling Cup campaign might be over but the youth experiment continues. I don’t know about others, but I really enjoy these games. The expectations from these games are not really low but different. Once you take out the importance of the result from a game, the sheer pleasure from the football increase manifold.

It’s a gamble as well. A poor result can adversely affect the confidence of the youngsters. I am sure Arsene can handle this pressure but it might not be so easy for the players, especially if someone is unfortunate enough to make a blunder. On the bright side, it gives them an opportunity to experience a fanatical atmosphere and helps them grow as individuals. This might be a crude way to put it, but such games can separate the wheat from the chaff.

I don’t know how to classify the players in this game. For instance, Song is just 22, but is nearing a hundred appearances for Arsenal. Theo, 20, has already crossed that milestone. Do we call these players young or do we call them experienced!? Of course, there are some rookies in the squad like our very own Tom Cruise who is likely to get his first start. The only real veteran is Silvestre and we have to give him some credit for maintaining his focus and motivation for such games.

Olympiakos needed a heroic effort from their keeper at the Emirates. If we can work Nikopolidis half as much, this game will be a success from our point of view. The Greek champions, though unbeaten at home this year, have only scored three goals in the competition so far. Hopefully our young defence will be able to keep them at bay.

The hosts need a point to go through and I will be surprised if they throw caution to the wind. I think Olympiakos will try to contain us. It would certainly be easier for them to hold a youthful Arsenal side rather than outscore us.

My hopes from the game are quite straightforward,

  • None of our players pick up an injury, especially the likes of Song, Ramsey, Walcott and Vela
  • The youngsters don’t get overawed and enjoy themselves on the pitch
  • Everyone puts in an honest shift

The team is likely to be,

Fabianski; Gilbert, Song, Silvestre, Cruise; Merida, Eastmond, Ramsey; Wilshere, Vela, JET;

I think it would be better to keep Theo on the bench as he has had too many injuries while making comebacks. It also gives us an option later in the game.

Here’s to some unadulterated pleasure


Glimpses of the old and shades of the new as Arsenal make Olympiakos suffer

September 30, 2009

I don’t know why but I kept feeling there was some joy in the air at the Emirates and it was coming straight into my living room from the TV set. I know it doesn’t make any sense. But I haven’t felt so happy seeing an Arsenal performance for a long time. Even when we were not scoring, there was something really positive in the body language of the players and the tempo at which they were playing. The goals had to come.

The runs into the box by Fabregas and Rosicky in particular reminded me of the way Pires and Ljunberg used to dart in. It was almost like watching the invincibles. Rosicky has something about his game that no one else in the team has. I can’t really pin point what it is. To be honest I don’t know what it is. But every time he is on the field he seems to find the right position without even trying. We have missed the midfield runs for a long time now and it’s fascinating to see an integral part of our attack coming back to life.

Yesterday was also the first time when we saw Arshavin and Van Persie link up so well. In the earlier games it always seemed to me that they were not exactly on the same wavelength but some of the one touch passing last night was breathtaking. It was interesting to listen to RvP’s post match comments, especially his assessment of how the team is playing

Quite well. We have played eight or nine games and lost two, and every other game we won, so it’s not too bad. We’re still not there yet, but we are on our way.

When you know that the players realize they are playing well but there is room for improvement it tells you two things; the confidence in the squad should be high and more importantly they know there is room for improvement that means they are constantly working on it. There is no complacency.

Olympiakos came into this game with a fantastic defensive record having conceded only two goals in the season so far. They also came on the back of five wins and clean sheets in the Champions League qualifying rounds and the first game against AZ. The way we opened up such an organized team and left them looking out of place and demoralized should eliminate any doubts about our ability to open up defensive minded teams.

Two wins out of two should also help us in securing the qualification for the knockout stages with a couple of games to spare. As I had observed after the champions league draw, our last two group matches precede a visit from Chelsea and a trip to Anfield. It will be very helpful if we have our second round pass secured before those games. The draw between AZ and Liege should also help in that. Even if we get four points against AZ we should be through.

Amongst all the positives from the game there was one worrying aspect. After we scored the first goal our game became sloppy. Too many players switched off. It’s very surprising but it happens so often. After dominating the game for so long how can we suddenly stop getting the passes right, how can we lose the ball so cheaply, why do we make the lives of our defenders and goalkeeper so miserable in the last few minutes. This is exactly the reason why we fail to defend a lead against the big teams. Olympiakos didn’t have the class in the final third but a lot of top teams make us pay. A lucky off side goal from Arshavin helped us last night but we really have to sort this issue out. The whole team has to learn to focus till the final whistle blows.

Anyway I don’t want to dwell too much on the negative after such a delightful performance. Our winning streak has started gathering some steam and with the likes of Blackburn and Birmingham lined up we should continue our forward momentum.


Another one of those supposedly easy games

September 29, 2009

Olympiakos are the Greek champions. But that’s been the case for over a decade. So it doesn’t mean anything, at least in the European context. They haven’t got a great European record but they haven’t got a very bad one either. Over the years they have troubled some higher rated teams like Werder Bremen and Lazio. But what they lack is consistency.

On the face of it, this should be an easy victory. So far we have only played four games at home in all competitions and won each of them with at least a two goal margin. Why should this be any different?

Olympiakos were among the third seeds during the draw. But they managed to beat the second seeded Alkmaar in the first match week. Standard Liege are no pushovers either. I have a feeling the second place in this group will be tightly contested between all the three sides. In such a situation, neither of them might have any hopes of getting points at the Emirates. But all of them would see this as a nothing to lose situation which can make all our home games a little tricky.

It remains to be seen whether the visitors turn up to give their best and enjoy themselves on the pitch without worrying about the result or they come here with the thought of stealing a point. There is some news about the team being tired and this being their fourth game in ten days. Whether this will affect them or not will be seen shortly on the pitch.

They have recently changed their coach. Zico is a legend. He has had some good stints as a manager with Japan and Fenerbache. But the Brazilian maestro might not have had the time to exert his influence on the Greek side as he took charge only a few days ago. But I am hoping he will bring a side full of positive intent.

I expect them to be a team that will be a threat on the counter and in the air. If we can keep them quiet on those fronts there is no reason why we shouldn’t pick up another confidence boosting clean sheet.

From our point of view we need to see Cesc enjoying himself again. Arshavin will always be a player of moments. He will not be around for the full 90 minutes. But every time he does get into action the game rises to a higher level. Let’s hope we get to see a couple of ‘Arshavin Moments’ in this game. He has had a relatively quiet start and this will do him and us some good.

I feel this is a game where Rosicky can play the full 90 minutes. Whether Le Boss chooses to do so or not is a different question. Playing with Rosicky in the center of the park could just be the catalyst that re-ignites our captain. It will definitely leave us a little exposed defensively but if we can’t manage against Olympiakos then we will really struggle against the bigger teams. If Arsene does not start Rosicky, I would like to see Ramsey get a start in stead. Anyone but Diaby – That’s my motif.

It will also be interesting to see a cameo from Vela towards the end. He has not been in the thick of action for too long. Recent rumors about him moving on a loan to a struggling Spainish side make me uncomfortable. I just cannot see that as a positive step in his career. He needs to start getting more involved in first team action. This could be a good start. It would also be interesting to see Wilshere get a run out in the last few minutes.

I hope we see the following starting line up

Mannone

Sagna               Gallas               Vermaelen                    Clichy

Song                Cesc                Rosicky

Arshavin           Van Persie        Eduardo

Let’s hope we avoid a Greek tragedy.